Asking Is the pope Catholic is widely understood as a rhetorical question indicating that the only answer has to be “yes.” How could anyone cast doubt on the pope’s religious affiliation?
Amazingly, a small but powerful minority of Catholic theologians and church leaders are doing just that, and they raise real doubts about his commitment to what they consider core Catholic beliefs.
A minority of these dissidents believe that the church has already veered into schism while others assert that Francis’ statements on some important moral issues have caused serious confusion and bewilderment among the faithful.
How does one explain this extraordinary situation?
In 2014 and 2015 the Synod of Bishops met at Francis’ invitation to consider how best the church could minister to the modern family in all its permutations, including divorced people in new relationships and members in same sex partnerships.
Two approaches were evident in this all-male assembly. One group argued that only an exclusive marriage union of man and woman is morally permissible. Divorce is completely out except where the divorced partner has received a church annulment. They argue that it has always been church teaching that someone in a second marital relationship – while the first spouse is still alive – is committing adultery which rules that person out from receiving communion.
The second group, following more liberal thinking, doesn’t dispute the church history of teaching against allowing the remarriage of divorced church members, but they stress that a pastoral approach to people in new marital relationships should not exclude them from participating in the most revered Catholic sacrament, the Eucharist.
These theologians point to the example of Christ who scorned many of the pharisaic laws of his time in favor of a perspective characterized by mercy and forgiveness. Pope Francis supports this approach.
Cardinal Muller who was Francis’ doctrinal leader in the Vatican made no bones about his opposition to his boss: “No power in heaven or on earth, neither an angel or the pope, has the power to change church doctrine.” This confrontational statement implied that the pope was acting beyond his authority when he opened the door to divorced church members receiving communion in his statement, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) published following the bishops’ synod deliberations.
Four other cardinals, including the American Cardinal Burke, wrote a formal letter, called a “dubia” or doubt document, in the fall of 2016 disputing parts of Amoris Laetitia. They argued that it is an article of faith that church doctrine can never change, and they were clear that the ban on adulterers – their language – receiving communion could never be lifted.
Many conservative theologians supported the cardinals’ dubia and urged Francis to meet with the dissidents to assure them that he fully supported traditional doctrine. Talk about papal heresy was only mentioned by a few clerics and theologians on the far right but there is no denying that many church conservatives are openly dissatisfied with Pope Francis.
There are other issues that seriously divide the Catholic Church. Francis’ predecessor, Benedict, spoke of homosexual relationships as profoundly disordered and against the laws of nature. Francis would never use such negative and demeaning language. His attitude to gays is best summed up as “live and let live and don’t play God.”
He has met with transgender people and many gay partners in his office in the Vatican, at all times proclaiming that, especially in matters of sexual ethics, only God judges and even as pope he is not asking for a share in this responsibility! He appointed Blase Cupich as Archbishop of Chicago even though Cupich openly supports welcoming homosexual couples to the altar rails for communion.
Francis travelled to Sweden to celebrate with Lutheran leaders the contributions of Martin Luther to religious progress. He pronounced that Luther was “a witness to the gospel” and the Vatican issued a stamp honoring him. Traditionalists were aghast at this behavior. They have consigned Luther to the hottest corner of hell and recall the history of hatred and wars that they say his heretical revolt against Rome started 500 years ago.
They accuse Francis of relativism, an excessive openness to changing with the times. In the world of Thomas Aquinas and the scholastics what was morally wrong a thousand years ago continues to be wrong for all time and in all cultures. This is basic teaching for nearly all traditionalists. There is no place in this thinking for what is derided as situation ethics which allows for variations in what is right and wrong, depending on place, time and circumstances.
These divisions are very evident in the American church. The United States conference of bishops at their recent meeting in Baltimore agreed that following on Amoris Laetitia they will publish a document next year on meeting the complex needs of families in the United States. It seems that many of those attending want to use Humanae Vitae, the discredited 50-year old encyclical of Paul V1 which condemned the use of condoms and contraceptive pills by Catholics, as somehow a template for their 2019 letter.
This does not augur well for a pastoral letter on the changing demands of family life. It is also depressing for progressive Catholics that the bishops elected a conservative Kansas archbishop to oversee the Pro-Life Activities Committee over Cardinal Blase Cupich who mirrors Francis’ pastoral approach.
Pope Francis is the most respected public figure in the world. His people in what he calls the field hospital of life are behind his agenda to move the church forward from a mostly static and immovable institution to a dynamic positive force for all people in the 21st century. He surely deserves our prayers and goodwill.